Webb telescope finally completed, ready for shipment to launchpad

After more than two decades of construction (ten years behind schedule) and more than $10 billion (20 times the original cost), the infrared James Webb Space Telescope has finally completed its testing and is ready for shipment to its launch site in French Guiana to be mounted on an Ariane 5 rocket.

Now that observatory testing has concluded, shipment operations have begun. This includes all the necessary steps to prepare Webb for a safe journey through the Panama Canal to its launch location in Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America. Since no more large-scale testing is required, Webb’s clean room technicians have shifted their focus from demonstrating it can survive the harsh conditions of launch and work in orbit, to making sure it will safely arrive at the launch pad. Webb’s contamination control technicians, transport engineers, and logistics task forces are all expertly prepared to handle the unique task of getting Webb to the launch site. Shipping preparations will be completed in September.

If all goes well, NASA and ESA hope to launch the telescope in late October. It will then take about six months for the telescope to unfold and reach its operating position a million miles from Earth in the Earth’s shadow.

Let us all pray that everything works. If it does not, there will be nothing that can be done to fix it for probably at least five years, if then, as it will be out of reach of any maintenance mission, manned or unmanned.

Arianespace successfully completes first Ariane 5 launch in almost a year

Arianespace today successfully completed its first Ariane 5 launch since August 2020, placing in orbit two commercial communications satellites.

The long gap in launches occurred because of a vibration issue discovered during that August 2020 launch durng the release of the rocket’s two fairing halves.

Engineers introduced modifications to the Ariane 5’s payload fairing, or nose cone, to reduce vibrations imparted on the satellites during separation of the shroud, which protects payloads during the first few minutes of flight through the atmosphere. Ground teams will analyze data from the rocket to make sure the changes reduced the vibrations.

Another launch is scheduled for September, followed next by the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in either November or December. The results from today’s launch as well as the one in September will determine if the Webb launch will go forward on time.

These issues with Ariane 5, delays imposed by the company in fear of the Wuhan flu, and other launch problems with Arianespace’s Vega rocket, has meant that this is only its second launch in 2021, a pace that is below its pace for most of the last decade. Whether the company can recover and pick up the pace before the end of the year will depend on what they learn during today’s launch.

With only two launches total, Europe’s Arianespace remains off the leader board in the 2021 launch race:

24 China
20 SpaceX
12 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. lead over China in the national rankings remains 30 to 24.

Problem with Ariane 5 rocket causes Arianespace to delay Webb telescope launch

As first revealed in mid-May, Arianespace has been forced to delay the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by at least one month because of a problem with the fairing on its Ariane 5 rocket, found during an August 2020 launch.

There have been no Ariane 5 launches since. According to yesterday’s press briefing, however:

“The origin of the problem has been found. Corrective actions have been taken,” Daniel de Chambure, acting head of Ariane 5 adaptations and future missions at ESA, said. “The qualification review has started, so we should be able to confirm all that within a few days or weeks.” He did not elaborate on the problem or those corrective actions, beyond stating that the problem took place during separation of the payload fairing. Industry sources said in May that, on the two launches, the separation system imparted vibrations on the payload above acceptable limits, but did not damage the payloads.

It appears this new delay to Webb’s launch is because two commercial payloads must lift off first before Webb, with the first now scheduled for July. According to Arianespace, it will take two months prep for the next commercial launch, followed by two months prep for the Webb launch. That puts the launch of Webb in November.

Overall this particular delay is slight, only a few weeks, and pales in comparison to the ten years of delays experienced by NASA during development and construction of Webb. It also will add very little to the telescope’s overall budget, which has grown from an original price of $500 million to now about $10 billion.

More delays for Webb telescope?

An issue with the fairing release on the last two Ariane 5 launches has not only paused use of that rocket since August 2020, it might cause another delay in the planned October 31, 2021 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

In a statement to SpaceNews, Arianespace acknowledged that “post-flight analyses conducted on two recent Ariane 5 launches have indicated the occurrence of a less than fully nominal separation of the fairing, however with no adverse impact on the Ariane 5 flights in question.”

The company did not elaborate on the problem, but industry sources familiar with the issue said that, on both the August 2020 launch and the previous Ariane launch in February 2020, the separation of the faring induced vibrations into the payload stack well above acceptable limits. Neither incident damaged any of the payloads, but raised concerns about the effect on future missions, including JWST.

Moreover, Arianespace has two Ariane 5 launches on its schedule that are supposed to launch before Webb. If those are delayed it puts a further squeeze on the Webb launch date.

Meanwhile, the final checkouts of the Webb telescope have been proceeding, including a successful test of the unfolding of the telescope’s segmented mirror.

After a more than decade of delays and budget overruns — raising this telescope’s budget from 1/2 billion to $10 billion — it appears that Webb’s final schedule delay might occur not because of the telescope but because of the rocket.

In addition, the issue at Arianespace appears to be seriously impacting that company’s ’21 launch schedule, having failed to launch any Ariane 5 rockets so far this year.

Ariane 5 launches three payloads into orbit

Capitalism in space: Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket today successfully launched three payloads into orbit, two communications satellites and Northrop Grumman’s second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2), a robot designed to bring dead communications satellites back to life.

After several months of orbit-raising and phasing maneuvers, the MEV-2 mission will perform a similar docking and mission extension service [as done by the first MEV] beginning in 2021 for the Intelsat 10-02 communications satellite, which launched in 2004. MEV-2 will provide Intelsat 10-02 with five additional years of useful service life, helping it deliver media and broadband services across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.

This was only Arianespace’s third launch this year, tying them with Japan but not enough to get on the leader board. The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

19 China
12 SpaceX
9 Russia
4 ULA

The U.S. still leads China 20 to 19 in the national rankings.

Arianespace to resume launches in June

Capitalism in space: Arianespace now plans to resume launches from French Guiana in mid-June with the first Vega launch since that rocket’s first failure in July 2019.

That launch will place 40+ cubesats in orbit. Arianespace hopes to follow with an Ariane 5 launch near the end of July. Of that mission’s three payloads is MEV-2, Northrop Grumman’s second Mission Extension Vehicle to launch, planned to dock with another defunct geosynchronous communications satellite and reactive it for five years.

Arianespace and China complete launches

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket today successfully placed two communications satellites into orbit, one for the commercial company Eutelsat and the second for India.

This was Arianespace’s first launch in 2020.

UPDATE: China’s smallsat solid rocket, Kuaizhou 1A, operated by a Chinese company dubbed GalaxySpace, also launched a commercial communications satellite today.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
1 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)

Satellite company switches from Falcon Heavy to Ariane 5

Capitalism in space: The communications satellite company Ovzon has switched from SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to Arianespace’s Ariane 5 for the launch of its first wholly owned satellite in 2021.

In an interview Aug. 24, Ovzon CEO Magnus René told SpaceNews the company received a more appealing launch offer from Arianespace. “It’s nothing political or anything like that, it’s not that we don’t trust SpaceX — it’s just that we could get a better deal in cost and time and so on from Ariane at this time,” René said.

SpaceX charges $100 million for a Falcon Heavy launch, about the same as Arianespace charges for one of the two berths on its Ariane 5. Arianespace must have therefore cut its standard price to make it more attractive, and win the deal.

Ain’t competition wonderful? Governments have been trying (and failing) to get us into space for half a century, using the model of international cooperation. Introduce some competition and suddenly it becomes both easier and cheaper to do it. Who woulda thunk it?

SpaceX and Arianespace complete successful launches

Today, as I was giving my lecture in Denver, both Arianespace and SpaceX successfully completed launches.

SpaceX put a commercial communications satellite in orbit. The first stage was not recovered, but this was intended. The company however was successful in catching one half fairing in the giant net of its recovery ship Mrs. Tree., the second time they have done so.

Arianespace used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch a commercial communications satellite and a European Space Agency data relay satellite.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

12 Russia
11 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads Russia 16 to 12 in the national rankings.

Arianespace slashes launch price for Ariane 5

Capitalism in space: Arianespace has announced that it is once again dropping the launch price for an Ariane 5 launch, in order to increase the chances it will win several contracts this year.

Arianespace is competing for two major launch contracts in the Asia-Pacific region that should be awarded this year and expects there could be tenders for another three, said [Arianespace Managing Director and Head of Sales for Asia-Pacific Vivian Quenet].

The article does not mention the actual price, but Arianespace had been charging about $100 million per launch satellite, while SpaceX had been charging $62 million (for a new Falcon 9) and about $50 million (for a reused one).

Ariane 5 launches two satellites

Arianespace yesterday successfully placed a South Korean weather satellite and an Indian communications satellite into orbit using its Ariane 5 rocket.

The Indian satellite was initially supposed to launch in the spring, but ISRO pulled it back to India just after its arrival in French Guiana to do more checks on it because of the failure of another satellite using similar components.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

33 China
19 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

Arianespace had predicted it would do 14 launches this year. As this launch is described as its last 2018 launch, it appears they have fallen short of that prediction.

These standings will be updated later today, assuming SpaceX’s Dragon launch to ISS goes off as scheduled.

SpaceX and Arianespace both launch multiple satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX and Arianespace both had successful early morning commercial launches today.

The Ariane 5 delivered 4 Galileo GPS satellites, while SpaceX placed in orbit 10 Iridium communications satellites. SpaceX also successfully recovered the first stage.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

20 China
14 SpaceX
8 Russia
5 ULA
4 Japan
4 Arianespace

In the national rankings, the U.S. and China are once again tied, now at 20-20.

Arianespace lowers its launch forecast for 2018

Capitalism in space: Because of a launch miscue in January and a decision by India to delay a satellite launch, Arianespace today admitted that it will not meet its forecast of fourteen launches in 2018.

Arianespace, majority-owned by a joint venture of Airbus and Safran, has so far conducted only three launches, but expects a busier second half, CEO Stephane Israel said. He now expects around 11 satellite launches for the year.

There might be a similar number of launches in 2019, but it is too early to give a definitive forecast, Israel said, adding the company was now focusing on gaining customers for the lower cost Ariane 6 rocket due to debut in 2020.

The article states the launch cost for Ariane 6 will be 40% less than Ariane 5, which cost $100 million per satellite. This brings the per satellite price for Ariane 6 to $60 million, about what SpaceX presently charges. Whether that can compete with the prices that SpaceX and others will be charging in 2020, when Ariane 6 is expected to become operational, remains unknown.

Today’s Ariane 5 launch NOT a failure

Arianespace’s first launch attempt in 2018 appears to have gotten the satellites into orbit, even though contact was lost during launch.

From the reports, it appears that contact was lost when the second stage began firing.

Before this, the Ariane 5 had completed 83 straight successful launches, a track record that Arianespace repeatedly touted as justification for its higher rates.

Update: Arianespace is now saying that though they had entirely lost contact with the rocket after the second stage fired, the satellite’s themselves reached orbit.

A few seconds after ignition of the upper stage, the second tracking station located in Natal, Brazil, did not acquire the launcher telemetry. This lack of telemetry lasted throughout the rest of powered flight.

Subsequently, both satellites were confirmed separated, acquired and they are on orbit. SES-14 and Al Yah 3 are communicating with their respective control centers. Both missions are continuing.

It appears that the SES-14 satellite can reach its planned orbit using its own engines. Al Yah 3’s status is less certain.

If these results hold up, I will then declare, for the purpose of my 2018 launch standings, that this launch is a success for Arianespace. Arianespace however will certainly not consider it so, and will need to figure out why it lost contact with its rocket and why the upper stage did not function as planned.

Ariane 5 successfully launches 4 European GPS satellites

Capitalism in space: Using its Ariane 5 rocket Arianespace yesterday successfully placed four European Galileo GPS satellites in orbit.

This is expected to be Arianespace’s last launch for 2017. The standings for the most launches in 2017 as of today:

27 United States
18 Russia
16 SpaceX
15 China
11 Arianespace

SpaceX and Russia each have two scheduled launches, while China has one. China however does not release information about all of its upcoming launches, so it might surprise us with more.

Arianespace announces new launch contracts

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today announced it has won a new launch contract for two different satellites, bringing its launch manifest to 53.

The press release contains a lot of interesting tidbits:

  • They plan to complete 11 launches in 2017, which is slightly above their yearly average in the past six years.
  • In 2018 they presently have only 7 launches planned, the lowest number since 2013.
  • Of the 53 launches, Ariane 5 will do 17, Soyuz 27, and Vega 9, suggesting a shift away from Ariane 5, which has been the company’s mainstay.
  • The private joint partnership of Airbus and Safran, now called ArianeGroup, has taken control of the business, and has begun streamlining it.
  • Arianespace has now been relegated to only handling “customer relations” and launch operations.

Overall, it looks like this European private/government partnership is doing reasonably well in the new very competitive launch market. I still expect their business to shrink in the coming years, but I think they will be around for awhile.

Arianespace pins down source of launch abort

Arianespace has identified an issue in the electrical system in one of the Ariane 5’s solid rocket boosters as the source of the launch abort yesterday.

This is a preliminary report. They still need to find out exactly what happened and why. However, they also announced that their objective is to launch before the end of September. Moreover, they are not going to change the schedule of any of their other launches because of this.

Arianespace successfully launches two commercial satellites

Capitalism in space: Arianespace tonight successfully launched two commercial communications satellite with its Ariane 5 rocket.

This is the third launch by the company since it settled its labor problems in French Guiana in late April. Since then they have managed a launch ever two weeks, and at the moment Arianespace and SpaceX are tied for the most launches in 2017 at six. This tie should only last until Saturday when SpaceX hopes to launch a reused Dragon to ISS.

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